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A Tough 'Cracker' to Follow

Is It Difficult To Do An American Version Of A Gritty Brit Cop Series? If It Is, Robert Pastorelli Isn't Letting On

September 21, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Robert Pastorelli is anxious over the fact that his new series, "Cracker," has the unenviable time slot opposite the top-rated comedy "Seinfeld," he certainly isn't letting on.

"I don't even think about that stuff," he says matter-of-factly about the Nielsen ratings. "I let the guys in the suits sweat about that stuff. If we do good, we do good. If we don't, then onto the next thing. That's all."

"Cracker," which premiered last week on ABC, is based on the gritty, award-winning British detective series about a brilliant police psychologist who is plagued by a multitude of demons--he drinks too much, gambles too much and his marriage is in shambles.

In the American version, Fitz is a consultant for the Los Angeles Police Dept., with a penchant for Ban-lon shirts and Cadillacs.

Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane originated the role of psychologist Gerry "Fitz" Fitzgerald, receiving international critical acclaim and awards. The series, which began in 1993 and concluded last year, developed a loyal, albeit small, following stateside on A&E.

Though several American hits, including "All in the Family," have been based on British comedies, this marks the first time a British drama series has been so openly copied for American audiences, complete with the same title and lead character. Series creator Jimmy McGovern is not involved in the American version, but Britain's Granada Entertainment USA is part of the production team.

For hard-core "Cracker" fans, no one can fill the shoes of the gargantuan Coltrane. Pastorelli, who came to TV fame as Murphy Brown's engaging house painter, Eldin Bernecky, is determined to bring his own sensibilities to Fitz.

"These actors put stamps on things and then other actors get afraid," Pastorelli says during a break in the filming in Chatsworth. "They won't try or attempt to play a role because an actor has a stamp on it. What you have to do is put your own stamp on it. You just make it your own. You adapt it to your own organic being, you know?"

Executive producer James Sadwith, who adapted the series for American TV, had never seen "Cracker" until he was hired onto the project. "I had just seen that little blurb in the TV Guide where it said something like 'perhaps the most incredible hour of TV ever made,' " he recalls.

Though he was initially honored to be hired, Sadwith soon became "terrified and exalted and overwhelmed all at the same time. I felt, 'Why would anyone try to do this over again? They can't do it better.' I was terrified I would be the person to try to do that and fail. Then I felt if someone tries it and succeeds, they'll get an awful lot of credit."

Granada executives, Sadwith says, "look at the scripts. They give me comments. They have been very supportive. They look at dailies."

Paul Abbot, who wrote two episodes of the British version, saw the pilot and loved it, reports Sadwith. "He sent us a couple of story ideas for originals that he might actually turn into scripts, which would be wonderful."

The first several installments will be based on the British version's episodes. "Then very quickly we will be into our originals. You have to. There's only nine [British episodes]."

Because the British episodes were frequently three hours in length, Sadwith has had to condense them to fit into an hour format. "They are fitting amazingly well," he says. "We sent the scripts to England and Paul Abbot was saying, 'I can't believe how well these things are working as an hour. It just shows you how much padding we put in them.' "

Sadwith says it's a "constant tightrope" to retain Fitz's darker side in the scripts. "With the British show, part of the fascination was, 'How much of this guy can I take and still like him?' " he says.

"It really was watching a man on a high wire. It was watching a train wreck--a train wreck of a person and a train wreck of a marriage. If you make him too likable, you end up with Columbo. That is not what we want to do. Knowing how well it worked in England, it sort of is uncharted ground to see how far we go [here]."

"We're going to have to get the audience," Pastorelli adds. "Hopefully, we will gather an audience. I think if they tune in once, we will. The character is very flawed and can be very dislikable. I think at first we have to take a piece of the edge off of him just to embrace him a bit. He's smart enough to know where his problems are. But he's not brave enough to go inside and then lay himself out on the table."

Sadwith maintains that Pastorelli's Fitz is a lot more accessible to American audiences than Coltrane's. "There is a lot of humor in the lines, a lot of irony in the lines, which needs to be played," he says. "Robbie Coltrane is so dry and acerbic, I don't know if American audiences would have responded to him. There is more emotion to Pastorelli."

"Cracker" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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